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Islington Boat Club thrives after LMCT grant

Islington is one of those London boroughs that’s become synonymous with a certain image of the capital – stereotypical home to an affluent urban elite; the comfortable metropolitan crowd of media caricature.

Chris McCabe knows different. Now in his early 30s, McCabe grew up in Islington and still lives and works there, running projects for young and disabled people at the Islington Boat Club, a scheme set up on a shoestring 40 years ago to encourage local youths from less well off backgrounds to get active on the waters of the Regents Canal near its base in City Road Basin – to be, in short, “an adventure playground on water”.

Originally run from a barge called The Water Gipsy with a few old rowing boats – “Just pieces of wood, really,” says McCabe, “not proper racing boats” – the club now has its own premises and organises almost every conceivable kind of watersport activity for people of all ages and abilities. Using a veritable fleet of narrowboats, kayaks, sailing boards, dinghies and canoes, the club combines youth work and personal development with skill acquisition and adult training on a wide variety of vessels.

McCabe found the club when he was 14 and it has been a major part of his life ever since, initially providing stability and discipline at a time when he was an aimless teenager, newly arrived from Ireland and a frequent truant from school. For kids like him, the discovery of a welcoming boat club quietly moored among the noisy estates and terraces of urban north London was something of a lifesaver.

“It’s all I’ve really known,” he says. “I never went to school but I started going to the boat club and loved it from the start. Eventually, I gained qualifications in youth work, kayaking and sailing. A lot of my peers and friends came through the club too and now work in the industry.”

McCabe’s new-found skills and confidence took him to America and Norway, but three years ago he came back to help the Club grow in the face of severe funding cuts. “We’re very hand to mouth,” he says. “We’re always trying to keep ourselves afloat.”

One small financial life raft floated the club’s way in 2015 when it was awarded a Small Capital Grant from The London Marathon Charitable Trust – the registered charity created in 1981 by London Marathon founders Chris Brasher and John Disley. The charity owns London Marathon Events Limited, which organises the race and so receives the profits generated by the company and distributes them as grants “for the provision of recreational facilities in London”, an objective since widened to include all areas where the company stages events.

According to Chief Grants officer Sarah Ridley, the Islington Boat Club is just the kind of project The Trust wants to support, one requiring capital funding but with a viable plan to use improved facilities and resources to increase physical activity among inactive groups – “getting people off the sofa”, as she puts it.

McCabe’s plan fitted the criteria well as he was looking for innovative ways to attract a hard-to-reach group of local youngsters to the club. The answer, he decided, was not boats but mountain bikes.

“The area we’re based in is actually quite deprived and a lot of the kids round here aren’t interested in boats,” he explains. “But they were always hanging around the basin on their bikes, pulling wheelies and doing a lot of loitering about.

“They’d seen us working with groups along the towpath but they didn’t want to get wet. So I decided I needed to give them another reason to join us.”

The club already had some bikes for older youngsters, he explains, but they were ageing and unsuitable for the wary crowd he wanted to engage. The Trust’s funding of £3,624 was enough to buy 16 new machines.  

“It made a massive difference,” says McCabe. “Without the new bikes it would have meant leaving out a lot of younger kids who were just not getting the same experience. Once we had the bikes I could go to them and say, ‘Come and ride with us.’ They don’t all enjoy the water so having that option really helped us attract a new group.”

Attracting new people into activity is just what The Trust is for. Over the years it has made more than 1,100 awards with that aim, worth more than £64.5 million, grants of anything from a few thousand pounds to hundreds of thousands.

In 2016 alone, The Trust awarded grants to a diverse range of projects such as a new boxing ring and gym equipment in Brent, a riding arena at Mudchute Farm on the Isle of Dogs, an activity studio in Camden, a youth hub in Newham, and multi-use games areas in Ealing and Southwark. Gym equipment, basketball courts, running tracks, changing rooms, floodlights, BMX tracks and parkour spaces have all been funded over the years.

Trustees receive more than 200 online applications a year on a rolling deadline and make awards at quarterly meetings. All successful applicants must have a viable scheme, not just to rebuild facilities and replace equipment, but also to increase participation among inactive groups. This is what makes The Trust unique, according to Ridley.

“More than 30 per cent of adults in Greater London do less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a week and this has ongoing implications for physical and mental health,” she says.

“Our grants programmes are aimed at supporting projects that get people of all ages and abilities off the couch and participating in a wide range of sports and physical activities.”

Last summer the one-time loiterers at City Road Basin became regulars of the Islington Boat Club’s new cycling scheme, learning discipline and focus from McCabe and his colleagues – how to ride the new bikes responsibly along the towpath, how to go under the low canal bridges. Many completed a course in bike maintenance and the youth workers took them to a nearby BMX track and out to Epping Forest in Essex.

“The kids really got into it,” says McCabe, who reckons the club worked with 50 to 60 young people a day over the summer holidays. Once engaged, many were gradually drawn to the boats and kayaks too, their initial wariness washed aside by a new-found trust and enthusiasm.

“If you’re new to the water, it can be quite intimidating, so all the boys’ bravado goes away,” says McCabe. “Only when some had done the bike course did they finally get on the water. Now they’re doing kayaking and all sorts.”

Islington is hardly unique in needing this kind of support. Projects based in all 32 London boroughs and the City of London have received The Trust’s funding at some stage over the last 36 years, while schemes in Surrey became eligible in 2013 when London Marathon Events began organising the annual Prudential RideLondon festival of cycling, which includes several events that pass through the county.

Among the Surrey projects to benefit from this expanded remit is the charity YMCA East Surrey, which last year was awarded a £350,000 Strategic Capital Grant towards a major new inclusive facility at its Redhill sports centre, part of a plan to expand its programme for disabled and elderly people, and those with long-term illnesses.

According to Ros Boyle, the charity’s fundraising and development manager, the new sports hall, conference room and consultation areas will provide enough space to hold more than 70 additional sessions, attracting 1,300 more people in total, two-thirds of whom will come from “traditionally inactive groups”.

There will also be a new reception area and accessible cafe where disabled people and their carers can meet, helping them overcome social isolation, plus wet rooms with wide doors, lockers at wheelchair height and accessible changing tables.

“The money from The Trust has been fantastic,” says Boyle. “I thought £150,000 would be the maximum we’d get, so to receive £350k was amazing. It’s been great for other trusts to see the London Marathon’s faith in us and realise it must be a really good project. It was a perfect fit. We could see The Trust is very focused on getting people active and that it now covered Surrey because of RideLondon – it was good timing.”

With 80 per cent of the necessary funding now in place and planning permission granted, the new Redhill facility is due to open in autumn 2018.

“This is an excellent example of what we want to fund,” says Ridley. “They already work with disabled people and people who have had strokes and heart complaints, but demand is so great they just can’t meet it without new facilities. With our funding this will be a real hub for disabled sport.

“In a way, our aims are the same as the Marathon itself,” she adds. “The Marathon gets people active through running, we do it by funding projects, whether it’s a running track or playing fields, a skate park or a community hall.”

Or a few mountain bikes for an urban boat club aiming to make a difference. “We could do with a few BMX bikes next,” says McCabe. “One of the boys’ teachers said how much his confidence had grown, not just on the bikes and around the water but in reading too. Thanks to The Trust we know we’ve had an impact.”